Last Monday was the day we got the news that Jacob and Hilary’s 4-month old to-be-adopted daughter had died. We got the news around lunchtime. I had a session in the recording studio that afternoon and evening (for which I wasn’t much use, I’m afraid!). I came home that night, eager to find a way to memorialize Etsegenet’s life, what she represented in many ways, and how much she was loved.
I started searching the internet, as I usually do- I looked for text about losing a child and quickly discovered that the internet is full of such texts that are heartfully written, but not the kind of artful writing that I would want to set to music. Then I wondered about writing an African lullaby- but it was tough to decide what to make African- text, music, or both- and I really wasn’t coming up with anything.
Somewhere along the way- I don’t even remember where, or how, my continued searching led me to the epitaph that Mark Twain placed on the headstone of his beloved daughter, Susy. Susy was his dearest daughter, and she died young, at the age of 24. So the irony was striking, that too was a lullaby for a beloved lost daughter.
Most amazing, however, is the fact that the tombstone bearing this poem is in the very town where my brother and I were both born- our hometown city, Elmira, NY. (!!!) Indeed, Mark Twain spent many years in Elmira, and wrote several of his most famous works there, at his farm on the hill overlooking Elmira. My brother and I have both known and loved Twain’s works from our youth, because of the local connection. I even remember visiting the Twain (actually “Clemens”) family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, as a youngster- it’s only a couple mile from the hospital where I was born.
Even better than the miraculous connections between losing a daughter, and the hometown connection, though, this poem said exactly what I wanted to say. Look at this:
The text is by Robert Richardson- Twain found the poem in India but forgot the name of the author until someone else located for him, later on. Originally, only the poem was placed on the tombstone, but when Twain found out that people presumed he had written it, he had Richardson’s name added at the base of the stone. Twain did, apparently, alter the original text a bit, though, and definitely for the better!
Within a few minutes of thinking through the text, (not without tears, that night!), a choral setting just started to happen. I had no intention of writing an entire piece that night, but I just let the piece go where it wanted to, without forcing it- and before I went to bed (in the wee hours of the morning), I had written a setting of it, once through.
This setting wasn’t really long enough to work as a choral piece, though, so the next day I added two repetitions of it, with slight alterations, to extend the length suitably. Late Tuesday night (actually Wednesday morning), barely 24 hours later, I had the piece done.
I immediately emailed it to a publisher, to see if they would be interested in publishing it speedily, and sent a copy to Warren Cook. Later that day, Warren agreed to read it through in Chorale rehearsal (thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of Laura Cook!) that afternoon. I went back to school, and sat in the back row while the Chorale read through it- it really read beautifully, and moved me greatly. As I said previously, I’ve really never been moved before this, to write a piece expressing my life circumstances. I think this piece moves me particularly because of that…
Anyway, the text and setting fit perfectly with the Chorale’s upcoming concert theme, “There Will Be Rest”, and Warren added it to their concert.
So, this is a new speed record for me, and I’m thankful, once again, for the Chorale.
Good Night, Dear Heart will be premiered this Friday, Oct 24, in the War Memorial Chapel at BJU. Concerts are at 6:30 and 8:00. Tickets are required, but free, in the BJU Music Library.